Atlanta at the I-85 Crossroads: A 3,850-square-foot flat screen TV in your face – or not?

By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS, professor of the practice of planning at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture and former Atlanta planning commissioner

Motorists coming into the city on I-85 southbound toward the Downtown Connector, about 150,000 of them every day, pass on their left a giant wall sign, surmounted by a large sphere. The signs advertise big corporate products, like Comcast, at great profit for the advertising company that owns them. For the 25 years of their existence, with ordinary lighting, most drivers have been able to overcome their distractions and keep their eyes on the road.

Mike Dobbins, edit

Mike Dobbins

Now, even though the original permit may have been wrongly issued, the city has approved turning that giant billboard on the otherwise nondescript, largely vacant building face into an LED video screen, surmounted by LED lighting for the sphere. Flat screen TVs are usually measured in inches, the diagonal from one corner to the other. For this one, though, on the verge of becoming a reality, the diagonal measures in feet – indeed some 88 of them.

As they hear about it, more and more people are appalled – everyday drivers, neighbors, neighborhoods, members of Neighborhood Planning Units, Atlanta City Council members, and even Georgia Department of Transportation have expressed concern. Midtown Alliance and some of its biggest stakeholders have taken action, appealing the LED approval.

Driver safety threats are paramount. Beyond that, the city’s action poses these questions: “Who are we, where are we going, and how do we want to project ourselves to the outside world?” For years we carried outside detractors’ labels – “poster child” of sprawl, of crassness, and so on.

LED Sign, Mike Dobbins

This existing sign, aimed at motorists on southbound I-85 at Peachtree Street, is to be replaced with an LED sign that violates the city’s sign ordinance, says columnist Mike Dobbins. Photo courtesy of Midtown Alliance via Mike Dobbins

Beginning with the preparation for the Olympics, in 1996, and then following up, the city began to create the kinds of pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, parks and public gathering places that have underlain the city’s remarkable turnaround in growth and investment. The look of the city, along with its improving functionality, are playing a big role in the shifts that make us now an emerging world city.

If the city’s permit to “upgrade” the signs to LED technology is allowed to go forward, we can again claim to be the poster child of crassness. Indeed, the sign company boasts on its website that this is already the largest billboard of its kind in the Southeast. Will such a flashing digital entry to the city, impossible to ignore, define us forever as a city that favors ill-gotten gains over established civic values?

For a few, maybe, for whom the free-wheeling expropriation of the public right-of-way for private gain is okay. The city, though, since the Olympics has put greater and greater emphasis on how the city’s public realm looks and functions, through design guidance in permitting, through pedestrian and bike-friendly streetscapes, and now in city design where aesthetics have become ascendant. Indeed, the approval of this sign directly contradicts the city’s own policy:

  • “The City of Atlanta finds that the number, size, design characteristics, and locations of signs in the city directly affect the public health, safety, and welfare. The city finds that signs have become excessive, and that many signs are distracting and dangerous to motorists and pedestrians, are confusing to the public and do not relate to the premises on which they are located, and substantially detract from the beauty and appearance of the city.” Atlanta Code of Ordinances: 16-28A.003.
LED sign, kelly jordan

A protest movement is emerging to oppose the installation of an 88-foot diagonal LED video screen on this building, and LED lighting for the sphere. Credit: Kelly Jordan

So how did this affront to public policy come to be?

Before the Olympics, the original permit in 1993 was issued seemingly contrary to the regulations of the day. A type of bait and switch tactic was employed to claim that this was a “business” sign associated with small offices located in the building, instead of an “off-premise” sign, or billboard, illegal at that size even then. The result appears to have been a violation of the letter and certainly the intent of then existing policy.

So what is to be done? If you look forward to enjoying the world’s largest flat screen projecting a stream of ads every seven seconds, 24-7, as another of Atlanta’s No. 1 claims to fame, you need do nothing – the permit’s been issued. If, on the other hand, you think that highway safety first and foremost, citizen sentiment, and public stewardship deserve better, tell the City to reconsider: The mayor, your council member, the commissioner of planning, the Board of Zoning Adjustment. And show up at the BZA hearing on the matter on Thursday, June 6 starting at noon at Atlanta City Hall.

There’s still hope that the city will reverse its permit issuance and restore its commitment to improved aesthetics, functionality and, most importantly, to travel safety.

 

5 replies
  1. Avatar
    Darius says:

    Doesn't Corey have a similar sized LED sign along the Grady curve? Has any accidents been attributed to that one? Doesn't New York City have 100's of these in Times Square… Similarly, London, Tokyo, Singapore, San Francisco, etc. I'm not a fan of Billboards and constant advertising either. However, in this instance, we're all pretty use to seeing that large 88 ft mechanical billboard on that building. So your driver distraction argument is moot. The current billboard is mechanical doesn't always flip correctly to display the intended ad. The result usually is something that looks raggedy and highlights the fact that the entire building is a half-renovated eyesore looming over the connector. I actually think turning it into an LED display will improve the aesthetics of both the billboard and the building. The digital aspects of it could also be used to display helpful warnings and messages (like the Corey one does)… something that is actually helpful during emergencies. Therefore, either no billboard at all (allowing us to fully notice this unfinished decaying building) or a huge flat screen TV to distract our eyes up and away from our phones. Thus, allowing the city to restore its commitment to improved aesthetics, functionality and, most importantly, to travel safety.Report

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  2. Avatar
    Kaelin P says:

    Thank you for sharing about this issue. The current moving billboard doesn't bother me personally, but covering the whole building in LED lights would be such an energy sink; from an environmental perspective, it would be a huge waste of energy resources. In addition, the majority of us are faced with staring at screens all day long for work; it would be great to not have yet another huge screen to see on the way in to work. I genuinely hope that the City of Atlanta will reconsider this permit.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Darin Givens says:

    The story of how this technically-illegal billboard ended up getting approved and justified over the years is pretty crazy. But the worst thing happening here, IMO, is the dead space generated by this 12-story hollow structure that holds it up, contributing to the weirdness of the urban fabric here on the border of Midtown and Buckhead.

    I can't imagine the forthcoming giant digital sign looking any worse than the empty building it'll be attached to, which is a soul-sucking eyesore from my perspective.

    Ever since it was last occupied in 2005, this former office building (built in 1962) has been used to make money as a billboard holder and nothing more. And that's a terrible way to treat property on Peachtree Road near an Amtrak station.

    The presence of the money-making sign likely contributes to the building owners' seeming lack of urgency with putting actual people in it. That's a concern, for sure. But surely the two things could co-exist: active uses inside and a digital sign outside. It was, in fact, occupied by offices for several years when it had the current billboard.

    Whatever happens with the sign, it would be great if the city could find a way to prevent this property owner from spending even more decades squatting on an eyesore that stinks up a section of Peachtree that's already pretty challenged, urbanism-wise. We shouldn't be turning a blind eye to dead spaces in the city center.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    AC. Drew says:

    A giant LED sign just adds to the absurd amount of energy waste and light pollution in the city of Atlanta. A LED screen will project out indiscriminately into the night. It will harshly light some areas and cast dark shadows in other areas. Certainly, we can come up with something more creative to put in that space. And before you think that lighting is good, please read some literature on what city lighting does and does not do. (https://www.darksky.org/wp-content/uploads/bsk-pdf-manager/Safety-Brochure_FINAL2_33.pdf) Why can't we put installations that help bring back the night instead of trying to light every square inch of the city? Night and darkness are not a bad thing (https://nocturnepodcast.org/ep-7-the-vanishing-dark/).Report

    Reply

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